Foreign contractors could face prosecution in U.S. courts

Foreign contractors could soon face civil or criminal prosecution in U.S. courts for acts committed overseas.

On Wednesday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved a bill (S. 526) that would require foreign companies working on government contracts to consent to "personal jurisdiction" in U.S. federal courts for civil action or criminal prosecution related to alleged wrongdoing in connection with the contracts.

The legislation, introduced in March 2009 by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., would provide legal protection to any U.S. service member, government employee or American contract employee who alleges an overseas company caused serious bodily injury, including death, rape or sexual assault. Companies failing to appear in court to answer charges could be suspended or debarred from contracting.

The bill is named for Lt. Col. Dominic Baragona, who was commander of the 19th Maintenance Battalion in Iraq when he was killed by a supply truck driven by an employee of Kuwait Gulf and Link Transport Co., a Defense contractor. The Baragona family attempted to sue the company for wrongful death, but the firm successfully argued that American courts lacked jurisdiction.

"It's not right that soldiers can get killed and the contractor can just thumb their nose," McCaskill said at a committee meeting Wednesday.

McCaskill, who held a hearing on the Baragona case last November, said she amended the legislation to address concerns the Pentagon raised about the bill's application and retroactivity.

The committee also approved a bill to change the management of the Census Bureau. The Census Oversight Efficiency and Management Reform Act, sponsored by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., would make the job of Census director a five-year term-limited position.

The first term under the legislation would begin on Jan. 1, 2012. Individuals could serve a maximum of two full terms. The Census director would report directly to the secretary of Commerce.

An amendment added by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., would mandate that the qualifications for all Census directors include a demonstrated ability to manage large organizations. Previous directors have been criticized for poor management skills. Committee members praised the qualifications of the bureau's current head, Robert Groves.

In addition, the Carper bill would require the Census director to provide Congress with a plan to examine the feasibility of conducting the 2020 survey online. Lockheed Martin Corp. told the bureau several years ago that it could develop the technology to allow the public to respond to the decennial count through the Internet, but Census concluded in 2007 that the strategy was too risky.

"The technology is there but the agency is behind," Coburn said.

An expected vote on the Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act, which would provide federal resources for presidential candidates to begin preparing for a transition before the election, was delayed because of a lack of a quorum.

The committee also:

  • Approved a measure to provide federal fire prevention assistance to state and local governments.
  • Voted to reauthorize the Federal Emergency Management Agency's predisaster hazard mitigation program, which provides grant funding to state and local governments to prepare for natural disasters.
  • Approved the nominations of Dana Katherine Bilyeu and Michael D. Kennedy to serve on the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board.
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